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Emotional Dysregulation in Children and Teens

What is emotional dysregulation? Is it a disorder? Is it common? What are the signs of it?

Emotional dysregulation isn’t so much a disorder as it is a symptom. Being emotionally dysregulated means a person feels emotions more intensely than they should, feels them for longer than they should, feels them at inappropriate times, or responds to them in extreme ways. People who exhibit signs of emotional dysregulation often have severe mood swings or extreme emotional instability.

The most common people to experience emotional dysregulation are those with either personality disorders or mood disorders. However, it exists in other scenarios, as well.

For example, some people with ADHD experience emotional dysregulation, but not all. Oftentimes, those who have extreme anxiety disorders experience emotional dysregulation. Even those who are manic depressive tend to be emotionally dysregulated.

As previously stated, it isn’t so much a disorder (in and of itself) as it is a symptom of something bigger.

One of the most common causes of emotional dysregulation in children is childhood trauma. Regardless of what the “diagnosis” ends up being–depression, anxiety, PTSD, Schizoaffective Disorder, ADHD, etc–researchers have found that there’s almost always trauma in the child’s history.

But why does trauma cause emotional dysregulation? And what does emotional dysregulation look like in children? How is it treated? Is it possible to live without treating it?

When a child experiences trauma–which could be as severe as physical abuse or as “mild” as moderate neglect–the brain is affected. Specifically, the neural pathways in the brain either don’t form at all or they become damaged. This can prevent messages in the brain from getting where they need to go.

The prefrontal cortex can also become damaged by trauma during early development, which controls emotional regulation and decision-making abilities. When this area is damaged or under-developed, it becomes very difficult to behave in ways that are socially appropriate.

Furthermore, when the brain is in survival mode too often, adrenaline and stress hormones are released into the body too frequently. This can cause a variety of neurological and biological problems for children.

Emotional dysregulation in children and teens might look like:

– Excessive crying – lasting longer or more intense than what is situationally appropriate
– Extreme anger that doesn’t seem to have a justified reason
– Physical aggression toward self or others
– Bouts of impulsivity that result in harmful risk-taking
– Swift movement between the far ends of the emotional spectrum (elated one moment, but depressed a few moments later)
– Suicidal ideation, even at an early age
– Extremely fearful, beyond what is typical for their age

These are the kids who struggle to integrate socially into their environments because they can’t keep a lid on their emotions. Or, if they can integrate socially, they can’t do it for very long. They’re the ones who seem to burst their top as soon as they get home from school. Or maybe they lose control at school, and they spend a lot of time with the behavior department.

Although signs of emotional dysregulation look similar in children and teens, puberty seems to exacerbate the problem. All teens struggle with emotional management due to the flood of hormones rushing through their bodies, but those who experience emotional dysregulation will have an even more difficult time.

They won’t just be angry all the time. They’ll be so angry that they ruin every relationship they have.

They won’t just be sad all the time. They’ll cry excessively, experience extreme depression, and self harm.

They won’t just go through bouts of happiness that cause them to be a little braver. They’ll experience impulsivity to such an extreme that they drive erratically, spend every dime they have, steal from department stores, take up smoking, or sleep around without protection.

Emotional dysregulation is all about the extreme side of not being able to manage your emotions.

It is possible to live without treating this symptom. However, it’s very difficult, and it can be dangerous for many people. Being unable to regulate their emotions, and having extreme emotions on top of that, has caused people to commit suicide, to drive themselves into bankruptcy, to get into fatal car accidents, to hurt their children, to be fired from job after job, or to be unable to get a job at all.

The list could honestly go on and on. Emotional dysregulation completely disrupts a person’s ability to live in healthy ways.

Treatments for this problem are varied, but they almost always include some form of therapy and one or more medications. For children, treatment is even more complicated due to concerns about how medication will affect their brain development. Oftentimes, children are treated using therapeutic interventions as well as environmental changes before medications are tried. This could even look like a child having modifications at school, which is written in an Individualized Education Plan based on their behaviors.

No matter how a child is treated for emotional dysregulation, it’s a problem that ought to be closely monitored in order to keep the child safe. There is hope for a healthy life, but it’s going to take an army of people who are willing to be intentional and helpful.

Emotional Dysregulation in Children and Teens


W. R. Cummings


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APA Reference
Cummings, W. (2020). Emotional Dysregulation in Children and Teens. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 29, 2020, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/childhood-behavioral/2020/01/emotional-dysregulation-in-children-and-teens/

 

Last updated: 5 Jan 2020
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